Overlooked Position Players In Triple-A





It doesn't take any particular genius to sense that Buster Posey and Carlos Santana both have high offensive ceilings. They crushed Triple-A pitching this year and made immediate impacts in the big leagues with the Giants and Indians.

Our annual Best Tools survey confirms the obvious. Posey ranked as the best batting prospect in the Pacific Coast League and Santana earned the same honor in the International. That both are solid defensive catchers makes them among the most valuable commodities in the game.

But what is not always so obvious is which Triple-A players may one day be big league contributors because they possess one or more plus non-hitting tools. These players can be especially difficult to detect if they are having a rough season at the Triple-A level, whether their struggles stem from youth or inexperience.

So while all the vote-getters for best batting prospect in our annual Best Tools survey ought to be familiar to most—Santana, Posey, Michael Brantley, Freddie Freeman, Jon Jay, Logan Morrison and Brett Wallace—how many candidates for fastest baserunner or best defensive second baseman spring to mind?

That's where the Triple-A managers, by virtue of filling out the Best Tools ballot, can help fill in the blanks.

POWER

Like batting acumen, power potential is fairly easy for the layman to detect. Home runs, doubles, triples, slugging percentage, isolated power—all five of these measures can tell us how frequently a player collects an extra base on a ball in play. Santana earned the best power nod in the IL this year, while Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia took home PCL honors by blasting 31 homers in 95 Triple-A games and then two more in his first big league game Sunday.

Similarly, the Rays finally rewarded 31-year-old slugger Dan Johnson for his fine play for Durham by calling him up on Aug. 3 to replace the injured Carlos Pena. All Johnson did in the minors was hit .303/.430/.624 in 340 at-bats to lead the IL in on-base percentage, slugging, home runs (30), RBIs (95) and walks (75). Opposing managers took note, nominating him for both best power and best strike-zone discipline. Because Johnson had spent 328 games in the big leagues prior to this season, he did not qualify as a prospect—even if using a loose definition.

Some other names to file away:

• In the IL, 24-year-old Buffalo outfielder Lucas Duda (Mets) has batted .317/.386/.650 with 30 extra-base hits in 180 at-bats. His .311 isolated power ranks fourth at the Triple-A level among those with at least 20 XBH—and second to Arencibia among prospect-eligible players. "Whenever he comes to the plate, you feel he could do damage," Columbus manager Mike Sarbaugh said. "I saw plus-plus raw power from him when he played us. He's got a good swing, yet he doesn't get cheated."

• Salt Lake first baseman Mark Trumbo (Angels) benefits from a favorable home park, but he actually has hit more doubles (13 to 10) and homers (15 to 12) on the road than at home in exactly the same number of games. For whatever reason, his average receives a 100-point boost (.344 to .247) from playing in Salt Lake City. The 24-year-old Trumbo's 27 longballs place him in three-way tie for second in the PCL. Though he's an average defensive first baseman, Trumbo's ticket to the big leagues is power—and it can be a 60 tool on the 20-80 scale with further refinement.

• The only category that Tacoma center fielder Greg Halman (Mariners) leads the PCL in is strikeouts. But the 22-year-old continues to draw attention from scouts because all his tools—except hitting—project to be average or better. His power is evident in the form of 26 homers and a .307 ISO, and he can play defense, run and throw up to the standards of major league average. But few players with Halman's extreme walk-to-strikeout ratio (.25) have had success in the big leagues. A best-case scenario would seem to be as an early-career Alfonso Soriano type of player. The down side: a hitter resembling Wily Mo Pena but with much better baserunning and defense.

DEFENSE & ARM

If a position player sports a 70 or higher arm and he can't hit or field, then he's probably on the fast track to the mound. So here we won't consider a strong-armed player unless his cannon is supported by another carrying tool.

Several hard-throwing big league relievers began their pro lives as position players. It's a list that includes Rafael Soriano, Jason Motte, Rafael Betancourt, Carlos Marmol and 2010 Dodgers sensation Kenley Jansen. The Braves attempted to convert Van Pope, last year's IL best defensive third baseman, into a relief pitcher for this season, but it didn't take. Pope, 26, walked 16 batters in 11 1/3 innings for high Class A Myrtle Beach before drawing his release.

Teams expect corner infielders to hit, so that's why it's hard for a prospect to establish himself at first or third base for a contender. One slump and it could be back to Triple-A. As luck would have it, the IL this season has two players who project to contribute on both sides of the ball. Just don't expect to see either player in the big leagues this season as their parent clubs battle for division titles.

Corner Infield

Gwinnett first baseman Freddie Freeman (Braves) has been on an absolute tear for the past month and a half, batting .363/.429/.595 in 52 games from June 12 forward. He's hit his way into the picture for the IL lead in average (.306), doubles (27) and RBIs (71), ranking third in all three categories. Freeman, though, leads the league in one important category: age. He's 20, and more than two full months younger than Yankees phenom Jesus Montero.

What makes Freeman, the IL's top defensive first baseman, so special? According to his manager Dave Brundage, it's the well-rounded nature of Freeman's game. "He's much more agile than people would expect to see out of a lanky 6-foot-5 first baseman," Brundage said. "He's got a tremendous wingspan, with plus range around bag and good hands. He covers a lot of ground for a big man."

Buffalo manager Ken Oberkfell marvels at Freeman's offensive game. "His plate discipline is so strong for a young hitter," the skipper said. "And I'm impressed by the way he handles lefthanded pitchers and uses the whole field. This kid is legit."

Over at the hot corner, 23-year-old Charlotte third baseman Brent Morel (White Sox) eked out the best defender nod over Indianapolis' Pedro Alvarez and the veteran Wes Timmons of Gwinnett. A third-round pick from Cal Poly in 2008, Morel has the potential to develop 50s and 60s in four of the five areas, with the lone exception being speed. He began the year in Double-A and debuted on June 2 with Charlotte, a club for which he's batted .300/.333/.438 with four home runs, 14 doubles and just 28 strikeouts in 217 at-bats.

Middle Infield

The situation is a bit different on the middle infield, where a steady glove can carry a young player through occasional batting slumps. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shortstop Eduardo Nunez (Yankees) walked away with best defensive shortstop and best infield arm honors, but not for a lack of trying by Buffalo's Ruben Tejada (Mets), three years Nunez's junior. Between callups to New York, Tejada has played in just 65 games for the Bisons, decreasing his visibility.

Oberkfell singled out Tejada, 20, for his strong range and arm strength. "Sometimes he doesn't show his arm as much as he could," the manager said. For the Mets, Tejada has played a bit more second base than shortstop, but the young Panamanian still has a long way to go to develop his offensive game. He's batting .280/.329/.344 in 218 at-bats for Buffalo and a mere .196/.278/.232 in 112 at-bats for New York.

The 23-year-old Nunez has yet to play in the big leagues, though the Yankees have given him time at second (five games) and third (eight) with Scranton in preparation for a utility infield role in the big leagues. He makes solid contact and hits for some power, but as his .287/.336/.377 Triple-A batting line suggests, Nunez will provide most of his value by running (21 stolen bases in 26 attempts), defending and throwing (one manager referred to his arm as an "absolute cannon").

"He's a very athletic-looking shortstop," Sarbaugh said. "I saw him early in the year and really liked him. I saw him last year (in Double-A), too, and really liked the way he played the game."

• Oklahoma City shortstop Gregorio Petit (Rangers) fits the same basic mold as Nunez—strong glove, arm and run tool. The 25-year-old employs a contact-oriented approach without much pop and is batting .269/.329/.373 through 386 at-bats. The same general outline is true for 24-year-old Iowa shortstop Darwin Barney (Cubs), who even with no power has a peskiness and knack for contact that has some projecting him as a regular. Through 465 at-bats for the I-Cubs, Barney is batting .297/.332/.378 with 24 doubles.

• Eduardo Nunez's double-play partner with Scranton, 23-year-old switch-hitter Reegie Corona, got some love for best defensive second baseman balloting, but in the end he doesn't have the bat to profile as even a reserve big leaguer. Besises, he's behind Nunez and Ramiro Pena on the Yankees' utility infield depth chart.

Instead, the two Triple-A second basemen to monitor are Best Tools winners: Louisville's Chris Valaika (Reds) in the IL and Albuquerque's Ivan De Jesus Jr. (Dodgers) in the PCL, both of whom have shortstop pedigrees with a chance to hit for average.

The Reds' third-round pick in 2006, Valaika switched off shortstop this season, his second in Triple-A. The 24-year-old is batting .299/.328/.406 with four homers and 24 doubles, but even if that's not much, it's a far sight better than he did last year for the Bats when he hit an empty .235. Don't expect Valaika to offer much in the way of power of speed, but he can contribute defensively and as a situational hitter.

De Jesus, 23, missed nearly all the 2009 season as he recovered from a broken leg, so his offensive struggles are to be expected in his first taste of Triple-A. And struggle he has. Playing a Midwest-heavy road schedule away from Albuquerque's launching bad, he has batted .251/.292/.335 in 215 at-bats. Overall, De Jesus is at .286/.327/.391, and if he can regain the fine batting eye he has shown in the past, then he's probably an average hitter. This season marks the first that he's spent more at second base than shortstop, but in a backup role he's got more than enough range and arm to handle both middle spots.

Center Field

Durham's Desmond Jennings (Rays) and Salt Lake's Peter Bourjos (Angels), a pair of dynamic, 23-year-old center fielders, got the nod as most exciting player. Both were also easy winners for best defensive outfielder.

"He's so athletic, and he covers a lot of ground," Sarbaugh said of Jennings. "He made a couple of catches against us that were unbelievable. He looks so relaxed out there—he just lets his ability take over."

Bourjos debuted with the Angels on Aug. 3 and already has convinced veteran Torii Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner in center, to shift to right field. He's off to a 4-for-25 (.160) start in Los Angeles, but Bourjos started slow in Triple-A, too, before building to a .314/.364/.498 batting line that included a rare 1-to-1-to-1 ratio of doubles (13), triples (12) and home runs (13). He stole 27 bases in 32 attempts.

Jennings may have to wait until September to get his first taste of big league action, but he also put a slow (and injury-riddled) start behind him to catch fire in June (.956 OPS). He's slowed down since and is hitting .276/.348/.401 in 322 at-bats overall, with 28 steals in 30 attempts. With his broad toolset, Jennings reminded some observers of past IL standouts like Austin Jackson (2009) and Andrew McCutchen (2008).

SPEED

Players who lean on plus speed as their No. 1 tool are presented here along with their best supporting tool. Speed alone often is not enough to earn regular play in the big leagues. For example, a fleet player like Nyjer Morgan distinguishes himself from another like Joey Gathright by possessing strong defensive chops.

A two-time minor league stolen base champ (with a chance for a third this year), Columbus center fielder Jose Constanza won the distinction of this year's fastest IL baserunner, while Salt Lake's Peter Bourjos won PCL honors just prior to his promotion to Anaheim.

Bourjos is the more multi-dimensional of the two in that he's an elite defender with a chance to hit for average. The 26-year-old Constanza isn't a bad defensive player, but then again he's not great either. However, he is a high-percentage basestealer at 88 percent this year and 81 percent in the U.S. minors.

• Syracuse outfielder Boomer Whiting (Nationals) leads the IL with 29 steals (at a 74 percent success rate) and is hitting .267/.398/.332, showing a discerning batting eye and zero power. The 26-year-old switch-hitter plays solid defense in left or center but without much in the way of an arm.

Luis Durango (Padres) uses his speed to good effect to bunt, swipe bags and cover center field, but the 24-year-old Portland Beaver has just six extra-base hits in 89 Triple-A games. The switch-hitter is batting .299/.367/.324 with 32 steals in 47 attempts (68 percent).

• A 5-foot-8 switch-hitter, Sacramento's Corey Wimberly (Athletics) paces the PCL with 44 stolen bases (73 percent success rate), but he's out of step with any sort of defensive profile. His bat fits best in a lineup if he's playing an up-the-middle position, and the River Cats have deployed him in center (35 games) and at both second base (eight) and shortstop (29) this season. But Wimberly, 26, has spent almost as much time in left field (43) and at third base (eight). The .289/.369/.355 hitter through 440 at-bats is a fish out of water on a corner.